Kids around the world grow up dreaming about playing in the National Football League. Throughout their childhood, they run around the backyard imaging themselves throwing touchdown passes or catching a game-winning score in the Super Bowl. However, you’ll rarely find a kid out at the park pretending to be a professional long snapper.
For New England Patriot Joe Cardona, it was long snapping that led to a professional football career. Despite having plenty of experience at offensive line and linebacker throughout his high school days - as well at the Naval Academy Prep School - the skill of long snapping gave him a chance to extend his football career, whether he knew it or not.
“My dad, he was in the Navy actually, kind of had this — definitely — military attitude about showing up early,” Cardona recently told Pats Pulpit. “So, everyday we were at practice early, growing up, and he had me doing different skills. I wasn’t the biggest, most athletic kid, so, he saw an opportunity there for me to say, ‘Hey, you know, if you can learn how to do this skill, if you can learn how to long snap, you will always have an opportunity to play on any team you’re on.’
“He likes to remind me that he was speaking of a high school level, that I might have to specialize and become a long snapper. Fortunately I was a little better high school player than that...”
An opportunity is exactly what was presented to Cardona, who went on to be a four year starter as a long snapper when enrolled at the Naval Academy. Throughout his four years, Cardona was not charged with one bad snap, while Navy posted a 31-20 record — including four wins over arch-rival Army.
His success with the Midshipman provided Cardona with an even bigger opportunity, and one that most long snappers rarely get to experience. In the 2015 NFL Draft, Cardona was selected by the Patriots in the fifth round (166th overall) — making him the fourth pure long snapper ever to be selected in NFL history.
“Getting drafted was certainly unexpected and it was definitely something that I never anticipated happening,” Cardona said. “Going to the Naval Academy, or going to any service Academy really, you kind of put your pro football aspirations aside. I don’t even think I went into school with pro football aspirations, but due to a lot of luck and timing and circumstances that were well outside my control, decisions were made that would allow me, if the opportunity were presented, to take the field, I was going to be prepared.
“When my name was called on draft day, it was just a surreal experience. Especially coming from the Naval Academy, especially being a long snapper, I had everything working against me. But, someone saw the plan and I’m just doing the best I can to live up to that.”
While Cardona had a new career path in front of him, his focus was not entirely shifted. As a graduate from the Naval Academy, Cardona still has service requirements to fulfill with the U.S. Navy. After being drafted, his rookie contract showcased his foggy future in the league, even though his Naval assignment was delayed until after his first season. Cardona’s rookie contract was structured differently than most, as his signing bonus was lower than the expected usual, while his roster bonuses were higher.
After his rookie season, the long snapper’s request to continue to play in the NFL was approved by United States Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. But, when the NFL offseason rolls around, Cardona can then be found back with his fellow Midshipmen.
“As of right now, I’m active reservist, ready reserved, which requires a minimum — you know you hear it all the time — one week in a month, two weeks a year,” Cardona, who currently serves as a Lieutenant in the Navy, said. “Usually the offseason provides me a lot of opportunity to do that. Unfortunately this past season was a little tough, with Covid. You know, it was a little bit different than usual.
“Just like everybody else, we had to adapt and maintain our readiness. So it’s been easier than it was that rookie year as I get into kind of a more dedicated, reserved schedule. Where my rookie year, I was on active duty and learning my trade and kind of preparing for what was next with the day to day job. Now it’s just about maintaining readiness and being ready if something were to happen and I were to get called up.”
Back in New England, maintaining readiness and preparing is exactly what’s expected of Cardona. During his entire professional career, Cardona has not missed a game for the Patriots as he continues to master his craft each and every day.
“If you’re here in New England, we’re always gonna find ways to improve and not stay stagnant,” Cardona said. “Especially being in the National Football League, everybody is going to be looking for an opportunity to gain an advantage. So for me, continue to work to become a more accurate snapper and be there for whatever Jake [Bailey] and Nick [Folk] need - whether that’s just snapping duties or things outside of that that can help them.
“Also, being the best athlete I can be and being an asset in blocking and in coverage and not being a liability. So, year six now and I’m just gonna hope to continue to improve and work, to continue to improve.”
Throughout his six year professional career in New England, Cardona has been a staple on the Patriots special teams unit. Not only has he been the snapper for several important and game-winning field goals, but he has snapped in three Super Bowls - including Super Bowl victories in 2016-17 and 2018-19.
While he might not be winning MVP awards or catching game winning touchdowns — like the kids dream about — Joe Cardona has proven to be a winner both on and off the field, partly thanks to the old recommendation from his father.
“[My dad’s] foresight has led to an incredible professional experience, but also a degree from one of the greatest institutions in the country,” Cardona said. “So, his foresight definitely has played a big role in my life for that reason.”